DART aims at

DART will be the first spacecraft to perform a rendezvous without human assistance. Its autonomous rendezvous and proximity operations software will test additional algorithms by calculating and executing collision avoidance maneuvers and circumnavigation. To conclude the mission, DART will fly away from the MUBLCOM satellite (left).

ASA’s Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous Technologies (DART) space experiment will test the sensors, propulsion systems, and software that future U.S. spacecraft will need for conducting complicated maneuvers in close proximity to other spacecraft, without any help from human controllers or astronauts. The mission was delayed last November when Orbital Sciences, the prime contractor for both DART and its Pegasus launch vehicle, informed NASA that it had new data suggesting that DART’s ride to orbit might be rougher than expected. Jim Snoddy, the DART program manager at NASA Marshall, resolved the issue by ordering new hardware tests that showed DART could survive the rougher ride. The mission is now scheduled for launch this month. In orbit, DART will attempt to locate a 47-kg retired military satellite and use on-board computers and propulsion systems to perform a series of maneuvers around it. The mission will last 16-24 hr, depending on how long it takes DART to catch up to the target spacecraft. The chase time could be as long as 9.5 hr, depending on the date of launch and how accurately Orbital’s L-1011 carrier jet releases the air-launched Pegasus rocket.




Snoddy says. It weighs 360 kg.S. any deeper discussion of the military applications are prohibited. The fourth stage will stay attached to the DART structure through the entire mission. the technologies are now funded under the space exploration vision announced by President Bush. the official says. For DART personnel. Snoddy says. On the civilian side. The fourth stage contains a flight computer supplied to Orbital by SBS Technologies of Albuquerque. say DART officials. A tricky fit DART is a cylindrical space- craft about 1. To build DART. suspended by a crane.000 lines of software code written by Orbital. Autonomy will be essential in deep space because of the time it would take communications signals to cross millions of kilometers of space. AEROSPACE AMERICA/MARCH 2005 .S. by Ben Iannotta Contributing writer 27 Copyright© 2005 by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. spacecraft The DART technologies will be valuable for both human missions to deep space and military satellite operations in Earth orbit. Germany. The technology could enable the first fully automated dockings between U. It will run the experiment using 110.space rendezvous NASA’s on-orbit experiment may soon lead to the first fully automated dockings of U. and the two should be considered one spacecraft.8 m long and 1 m wide. workers maneuver the DART spacecraft. there is always the possibility that astronauts might be injured or sick and unable to guide a cargo craft to a docking. Vt. notes the official. and Augsburg. In addition. including its hydrazine and nitrogen fuels.M. spacecraft. The stage also contains a hydrazine thruster that will begin the test by boosting DART out of its 500-km park- At Vandenberg AFB. the technologies could enable DOD to spy on rival satellites up close. This carbon-fiber structure holds DART’s experimental guidance sensor and propulsion system. In Earth orbit.. over the upper stage in preparation for launch. N. engineers had to attach the cylindrical fourth stage of the Pegasus rocket to a slightly narrower cylindrical structure procured from Vermont Composites in Bennington. That time lag makes it impossible for controllers on the ground to orchestrate dockings or a rendezvous at great distances.

MUBLCOM must report its position in space to DART engineers prior to the spacecraft’s launch so it can be loaded into the DART computer. “We took it up to a factor of 3. When the new load issue arose. Vermont Composites supplied two inverted-cone-shaped rings to link the two dissimilar diameter cylinders. The first launch date. Snoddy decided he had no choice but to conduct new analyses and hardware tests based on the new load anticipation. 70-80 lb of tank sitting there like a big hammer. “Our biggest concern was the composite [inverted cone] structure. Snoddy had arranged time at four ground stations to receive S-band data transmissions from DART. DART had come close to being launched with the potentially fatal misjudgment. which are mated. Program engineers knew the juncture would be the most vulnerable part of the spacecraft.0. for multipath beyond-line-of-sight communications. and he had won a coveted launch slot within the Vandenberg AFB. The hardware . “We happened to have a piece of hardware made at the same time. A delay would require lots of rescheduling. partly because of the mass of the fuel and the fact that joining two dissimilar diameters tends to concentrate stress. were attached to the underbelly of the Orbital Sciences L-1011 (for a launch that was subsquently scrubbed). Orbital’s Pegasus team had received data about another launch vehicle that had used an Orion solid rocket motor similar to the one in DART’s second stage. was scrubbed when members of the launch closeout team discovered flakes of aluminum foil from the rocket’s fairing inside the enclosure. the fourth stage will send DART back toward Earth so that it does not become dangerous space debris. The result of that launch showed that the load might be much higher than predicted. Snoddy learned that the jolt from the Pegasus second stage might be much harder than previously thought. the Pegasus XL launch vehicle and DART spacecraft. but it cost me six months. With a $100-million mission at stake.4 times the loads engineers calculated DART would experience as the Pegasus rocket stages fired. Calif. which was about to be closed temporarily for maintenance. Engineers tested the spare inverted cone on a hydraulic press at Vermont Composites to imitate forces far greater than the new estimate for the stage-two jolt. One ring forms the tapered neck that joins the two. with a big mass. Vermont Composite technicians tested the inverted cones to 1. By requirement. rocket range. The Pegasus fourth stage is wider in diameter than the DART structure. ing orbit and toward the retired satellite called MUBLCOM. Snoddy says.” he says. the other ring is located inside the vehicle and connects the fuel tanks of the fourth stage to the DART structure.” Snoddy says. There was one fact that prevented an expensive and possibly much longer delay.” Snoddy says.At Vandenberg AFB. One day equals six months Days before the scheduled November 9 launch. October 26. We even thought about breaking it. The mission was rescheduled for no earlier than November 4. it must reenter the atmosphere and burn up within 25 years.” Snoddy says. was scrubbed because 28 AEROSPACE AMERICA/MARCH 2005 of a GPS problem on MUBLCOM that was successfully resolved. At the end of the experiment.. Snoddy assembled his NASA team to decide whether or not the launch could proceed. “It took me a day to make the decision. The next launch date. October 28.

“Once we get within 300 m. AVGS can be tested today only because in the 1990s NASA officials urged DARPA and Orbital to include laser reflectors on MUBLCOM. Snoddy says the sensor does not produce traditional images or videos. and that will be one of the interesting findings of the mission. DART will initiate a space-to-space UHF link with MUBLCOM to update the GPS position information. Though engineers consider AVGS to be DART’s eye. “Each points in a different direction to give six degrees of motion. and you don’t have enough propellant. “By definition.” Snoddy explains. At a range of 1. At a distance of between 500 and 300 m. Once it is about 40 km behind MUBLCOM and 7. MUBLCOM has two sets of three laser retroreflectors. Rumford explains. He also will not say how far off the load estimate was. “The last command is given prior to drop. Engineers do not yet know exactly when AVGS will be able to see MUBLCOM. The satellite was launched in 1999. Marshall software experts provided 13.” he says.” Rumford says. DART will turn on an experimental eye called the Advanced Video Guidance Sensor. He expresses no rancor toward Orbital. The transition point varies according to the maneuver but is usually when DART is meters away from MUBLCOM. The fairing will encapsulate the spacecraft and protect it while it is on the launch pad and during its ascent. It is retired but still functional. DART waits for fairing installation. The lasers would have no effect on MUBLCOM’s primary mission.” Rumford says. Does the eye have it? While the L-1011 is on the runway. The prototype was designed at Marshall in the late 1980s and tested on the space shuttle’s robotic arm. technicians will load a final set of GPS coordinates for MUBLCOM into the DART flight computer. From that point on. starboard. the AVGS will trump all other sensors in terms of importance. which was to test the ability of Army soldiers and Marines to achieve over-thehorizon battlefield communications with a quickly assembled satellite constellation. for much of the trip it will rely on the last MUBLCOM GPS readings. “I appreciate the notification. The goal is to chase down MUBLCOM without passing it. depending on AVGS’s performance. You calculate the time of the return signal. The flight computer then turns that information into propulsion commands. A separate camera on DART will return video images to Earth in near real time so managers can monitor the mission in a control room at Vandenberg. It’s almost akin to a GPS. one long-range set for when DART is relatively far from MUBLCOM and a short-range set for when DART is so close that all three longrange reflectors would not be in the field of view. AEROSPACE AMERICA/MARCH 2005 29 . to ask.000 lines of computer code for the new AVGS. however. you need three points to calculate distance. “Who’s giving you a better answer?” Snoddy says.passed the test without delaminating or breaking. you have many sources. It sees points of light. DART is now back on track for launch. there’s no human in the loop. DART’s flight computer will compare the GPS and AVGS readings as the distance closes. As DART climbs toward MUBLCOM’s orbit of 760 km.” he says. Software within AVGS uses the video to calculate distance and attitude.5 km below it. forward. according to Rumford and Snoddy. DART’s flight computer will use the AVGS information to command DART’s Proximity Operations Reaction Control System. “As a project manager. I can’t recall who informed me first. Snoddy will not say exactly how he learned of the faulty estimate. you can never get in front of somebody. and port sides of DART. It was a significant increase in our load [that] we had to recertify to. This consists of 16 cold-gas nitrogen thrusters arranged in groups of four on the aft.” Snoddy warns. The AVGS was developed by Orbital based on a prototype called the Video Guidance Sensor.” he says. because you’d have to do a whole other orbit. “One of the critical things is. DART will hand over guidance to AVGS. Orbital’s DART program manager. At Vandenberg AFB.” says Tim Rumford. “I’d hate to put a number on it. The AVGS will bounce low-powered lasers off MUBLCOM to calculate the relative distance and attitudes of the spacecraft.000 m.

DART will repeat the maneuvers from the beginning until its internal clock tells it time has run out.” Snoddy says. DART will maneuver behind MUBLCOM along its orbital path to a distance of 15 m. The most challenging part of the mission will be the series of “proximity operations” DART performs near MUBLCOM. Assuming the AVGS performs well. DART will then move to another point and head toward MUBLCOM as though it were on a docking axis.” he says. Mr. “It’s fairly routine for me to get calls in the middle of the night: ‘What do you want to do. After that. DARPA plans to fly a version of it on its Orbital Express automated docking experiment in 2006. It’s not a trivial feat. Next. Snoddy?’” 30 AEROSPACE AMERICA/MARCH 2005 . The dance culminates with DART dropping back to a distance of 1 km to circumnavigate MUBLCOM over the course of 75 min. It will hover there motionless relative to MUBLCOM for 1. “It actually has logic that says if you come within 5 m. “Most Marshall DART people are going to work on Orbital Express. Once AVGS loses tracking. ‘safe’ yourself by backing up. and we’re trying to dance around it. DART will move back within range for a new series of maneuvers from beneath DART.” Snoddy says. Stationkeeping there will enable managers to receive video of the mission under a full array of light conditions. However. or three-quarters of an orbit. says Snoddy. it will move slowly away from DART to determine the maximum range of sight for the AVGS eye. although he expects to be busy right up to the launch.5 hr to demonstrate the ability of AVGS to track a target under the varying lighting conditions of a full orbit. it will stop at 5 m. The mission will end when the fourth stage fires its hydrazine motor to send DART toward the atmosphere. The dance will start cautiously. DART will back off to a distance of 100 m and then approach MUBLCOM and perform a simulated collision avoidance maneuver. “It’s doing tens of thousands of miles an hour. as if a docking were being aborted.Dancing in space “Just finding [MUBLCOM] is an exercise in itself. Snoddy says that he is confident that all major technical issues are behind DART. These maneuvers will occur along tracks perpendicular to Earth.” Snoddy says.